Virgilio Martínez | Chef and entrepreneur
“You have to eat Lima whole”
He's regarded as the greatest chef in Latin America. Central, his restaurant in Lima, has been voted the best in South America and the fourth finest on the planet in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Virgilio Martínez invites us to explore the flavours of a city and a country where gastronomy is a passion.
Text: Martín García Almeida | Photos: Kreativa Visual | Video: Kreativa Visual
ur interview draws to an end shortly before service begins at Central. There's a similar tension in the air to that which you'd find backstage at a theatre; when the show is about to start and there's noise and silence at the same time. In the kitchen, movement is frenzied, precise and delicate. Front of house, the Maître d' is giving last-minute instructions. Sixty-eight people work to ensure diners get a unique gastronomic experience. Virgilio speaks slowly, savouring the words, and suggests a journey to celebrate the natural richness of his native country.
What does Lima taste like? What does Peru taste like?
Lima tastes completely different to Peru. Lima tastes of everything. Lima is chaos, diversity, fusion; Lima is a city. Peru is diverse. It tastes of what we actually don’t know about yet. There’s always a flavour to be discovered in Peru, a mysticism too. That’s what Peru leaves you with, a giant larder that we have to explore.
How important are your travels for your cooking?
Every dish is the result of a journey and each dish tells us what happened on one journey or on many journeys. What happens is we set a height for a particular dish. That height defines a certain ecosystem and the gradients of our land, of Peru. And this changes as we travel. Without the journey there’s no chance to come up with new ideas.
How and when did you come up with the idea of Central?
Central was an idea that was more or less fully formed in 2007. It came from the notion of returning home, with our very own real plan of making food that was personal, conceptual, connected to biodiversity, connected to Peru.
What would you recommend about Peru, gastronomically speaking?
You have to east Lima whole, starting with the ceviche bars. You need to try the native products that are beginning to come in from Amazonia, regional cuisine, Creole cuisine. You can find some great restaurants serving Peruvian food, including “anticuchos” (the Peruvian version of meat brochettes), “ceviche” (fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices), “causa” (a mashed yellow potato dumpling) and “tiraditos” (another raw fish dish). Miraflores is a good district for trying the Lima of traditional cooking and innovation. There are restaurants, for example, like Fiesta, restaurants like Isolina, serving traditional cuisine. Other restaurants like Maido serve ‘Nikkei’ cuisine. It’s worth trying some of this fusion of cultures that has happened in Peru. We’ve got a bit of China, a bit of Japan, plus some influence from Italy as well. We have a cuisine with a huge range of products, flavours and philosophies.
What does Latin America contribute to international cuisine?
Latin America will always contribute products and novel ideas. And what it can give the world nowadays is health.
How did you get to be a chef?
I had the option of staying at university, to study law, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I’d always wanted to travel…Being a chef meant I could travel around the world. It was like a game, an incentive for seeing new things. After two or three years, by that time I was working in serious kitchens, I knew 100% that I wanted to be a chef. I’ve got another story. I did skateboarding from a very young age. I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. I went over to California and I broke my shoulder just at the time I was looking for sponsors. I had to stop and I was left with all that energy so I channelled it into cooking. When I was skateboarding we used to go around in a group, putting on a performance, doing tricks, competing, and that’s what we do in the kitchen sometimes. Things haven’t changed that much.
How would you describe the process of creating a dish?
The main thing is to find a destination to travel to. Once we get there, we mentally photograph the place, the products, the producers, what’s happening; everything that goes on in that ecosystem. We base ourselves on two or three products, the ones that will take the dish to its final destination. We have to apply the journey to the dish. We feel it’s ready when the landscape, the place we visited, is reflected.
What do you enjoy the most about your profession?
One of the things I enjoy most about being a chef or about cooking in Peru is that I know myself better as a Peruvian; I know myself better as part of this environment and I didn’t have this knowledge or this feeling of identity before. It’s still developing and it’s becoming more and more powerful and energy-giving. I think that’s incredibly refreshing.